On validation and the kind of truth that hurts.

seeing-the-signs-of-the-universe-696x398

Hello, readers. How are you?

About a week ago, I received an email from Tom Strelich (his website is here), author of Dog Logic (which can be purchased here) and one of the judges of the Summer 2018 Owl Canyon Press Hackathon writing contest. I didn’t win the contest (terrible for my ego) and as it took place over the summer, I had naturally forgotten all about it. The email was a surprise, but when I read it, it transformed into the best kind of surprise that leaves you breathless and dancing in your underwear through your empty house in absolute triumph. The email was filled with positive feedback and a remarkably kind offer to review my novel on Amazon and Goodreads, Her Beautiful Monster. He wrote:

You have a really good voice, and those are rare (I read amost 500 short stories for the Hackathon and trust me, good voices are rare!).  From the first few pages I knew I was in good hands. The characters were great and you pulled off one of the most difficult balancing acts for a writer, to make them recognizable and sympathetic yet unique.  You’re a really good writer and I strongly encourage you to keep writing — you owe it to your talent and the reading public (the fraction that doesn’t go for pulpy genre stuff anyway).

You also might consider growing your story into a larger work (e.g., chapbook whatever those are, novella whatever those are, a binge-worthy boxed set, or just a novel).  I ended up doing that with the short story I wrote for the original proto-hackathon —it became the first 3 chapters of Dog Logic, the novel I spun out of it which went on to win several awards and is usually in the Amazon top 10 or so in its category (well, maybe top 20 on some days), so miracles do happen. Or, just cook up a whole new novel from your mother wit, you’ve got the chops for it.

This award-winning author did not have to email me. The fact that he did restores my faith in humanity, which means more than my faith in my writing talent, but it restored that too! His criticism was completely valid. His notes said: “…really good voice but the story isn’t as strong as the voice, but worth an email.” I remember worrying I was rushing the story to fulfill the contest’s deadline, and I remember pouncing on the first idea that came to mind, so the story definitely was not as strong as it could have been, as it should have been as an entry for a contest.

But I thought I’d use this sign from the universe to love myself as a writer more than I have been lately, and to share the story with you.


“In the Pines”

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

Madeline turned back to survey the 1985 Cadillac El Dorado. There was nobody to blame, that was true, but if she had to blame anybody, it would be definitely be Steve. He was perched on the hood of the El Dorado, smoking a cigarette. His flannel shirt blew open in the breeze to reveal a dark green V-neck shirt. His jeans were fashionably stressed and if Madeline had been in a better mood, she supposed Steve could have been considered handsome. But they had been traveling together too long for Steve to be anything but a douche bag. He’d led them here, to the middle of nowhere in West Virginia from the comfort of their cozy shore town in New Jersey, with minimal forethought. It was infuriating.

Here Steve was, pulling over not to ask for directions like he should, but to smoke a cigarette. He never smoked inside the car as a rule because he was worried it might depreciate the value. How that could possibly matter now when the two of them were on their way to deliver it to a buyer was beyond Madeline. Steve’s ad on Craigslist had been abundantly clear; all sales were final and as the money was already in Steve’s bank account, all they had to do was drop off the car and then fly home.

But that was the problem with Steve. He was always focused on the wrong things, the most random details. He had this wild and romanticized idea that this trip would be something Jack Kerouac would be proud of, that he’d learn all the secrets about the universe and his identity. Steve had had a rough go of it lately. He was in between jobs with no prospects of a real career. He’d come out of college with $100,000 worth of debt and a B.A. in English. Steve refused to be a teacher, so where did that leave him? He didn’t know, and the older he became, the more he convinced himself there was nothing special about him. Over beers at the local watering hole that they had been going to since their senior year of high school with fake IDs, Steve confided in Madeline that he was positive this level of mediocrity he was experiencing was as good as it was ever going to get. The defeated way he had turned from her and drank to keep from talking had nearly broken Madeline’s heart. She knew it was mostly self-serving, melodramatic bullshit, but she didn’t want her oldest friend to feel so sad.

The next day, Madeline woke Steve with his favorite breakfast sandwich from the local convenience store. As she plopped down on his bed and tempted him with sausage and egg and cheese on a perfectly toasted bagel, Madeline told Steve this trip might be exactly what he needed to mix things up and get some perspective. She offered to tag along, citing that she could use the different locales for her photography.

But really, the main reason Madeline had agreed to accompanying Steve was because she was sure he’d end up dead without her. He had basically confirmed her fear when, at the last gas station they had stopped at to fill up on fuel, he had thrown out the directions he had printed off of MapQuest. It was a genuine accident – he had only wanted to clean up a bit and dispose of food wrappers, straw wrappers, candy wrappers and the like – but it seemed like a fatal one now that they had no GPS. There was no service on their phones and Steve did not own a standalone GPS, which irritated Madeline to no end considering all the traveling he claimed to do.

They hadn’t spoken since the revelation of the discarded directions, and Madeline would be damned before she would be the one to break the silence. She stood a few feet in front of the car, staring off into the distance, sizing up their options. She had seen the movie “Deliverance,” had even watched “Wrong Turn” through her fingers, and knew they were in trouble. Aside from inbred mutants, Madeline disliked the distant sound of chainsaws coupled with isolation. Though it was warm, she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Which would it be, the forest or the hills? As Madeline gazed into the distance, she considered grabbing her camera from the backseat and snapping a few shots. A landscape like that would make a badass album cover or, at the very least, a nice picture from some real housewife’s living room. A crow squawked in the distance and Madeline shivered again. Crows were harbingers of death, and Madeline thought that was a bad sign.

The engine roared to life behind her, and Madeline knew that was her nonverbal cue to climb back in the car as a dutiful but silent copilot. She wouldn’t argue with Steve about the destination, deciding to let him choose and deal with the consequences, deciding to be content with observation and silent judgment. Reaching to turn on the radio, Steve also seemed fine with not talking, with just driving. He twisted the radio knob to move the dial until he found something that wasn’t buried beneath irritating static.

Nirvana’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” played through the speakers, and Steve turned it up. He had always loved Nirvana, partially evidenced by his penchant for flannel which had not ended in the 90s. A little too young to genuinely appreciate the artistry and bravery of the band, Madeline was still familiar with the song and its many variations. It had been a crucial element in her favorite murder mystery series on television; it had been the murderer’s favorite song and the clue that gave him away in the end. The reporter unknowingly hot on the trail of the murdered had ended up in his apartment, drinking wine and about to get cozy, when the murderer told her to wait just one second while he set the mood. The murderer went to a room in the rear of his apartment and started playing the song on his record player. It was the same song that had been found playing at all of the murder scenes and suddenly the reporter realized she was in real danger. Long story short, she killed him by plunging a pair of kitchen scissors in the murderer’s eyes.

That association, and the delightfully disturbing lyrics that were vague enough to be terrifying because they left so much to the imagination, aided Madeline in coming to the conclusion that the forest was not the way to go. She turned to tell Steve, but the music was loud, and he was singing along at the top of his lungs. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me/ Tell me where did you sleep last night/ In the pines, in the pines/ Where the sun don’t ever shine/ I would shiver the whole night through. Steve must have felt Madeline’s eyes upon him because he turned and flashed a gorgeous smile, the kind of smile that could all together kill the tension between them. It was the kind of smile Steve used whenever he needed to end an argument and ensure his victory. When Madeline refused to smile, he lowered the radio and asked her what was wrong.

Madeline said that she thought it’d be best to veer towards the hills instead of the forest up ahead. She told him the sunshine wouldn’t be able to shine through the thick boughs of all the pine trees, and she knew that wasn’t the vibe he was going for.

Steve wasn’t buying Madeline’s offered rationale. For one thing, the day was overcast so Madeline was full of shit on at least one count. Steve pointed this out to Madeline, and furthermore, Steve wanted to know why Melanie was really so against taking the road that led into the forest.

Madeline simply stated it was a feeling she had and that more and more articles were writing about the science behind intuition so if Steve had no strong feelings about it one way or the other, then he should just listen to her. Madeline leaned back comfortably in her seat but shot furtive glances at the radio.

Steve knew Madeline very well, an advantage of being in someone’s life since grade school and asked her if the song was freaking her out. He had come close to the truth, too close for comfort, and her cheeks burned red. She insisted that had nothing to do with it, but then quickly wondered what difference it would make if it had. After all, Steve believed in signs and omens; he had chosen this particular buyer out in the middle of fucking nowhere because the letters in his name added up to nineteen if you could fucking believe it. What a weirdo.

Steve agreed that he did believe in signs and omens but argued that Madeline was misinterpreting this particular sign. What if the song came on the radio because they were supposed to be in the pines? Had she ever considered that?

Madeleine said that was easy for Steve to argue because he wouldn’t be the girl shivering in the pines. Steve only shrugged, offered no real response, so she fell silent and was happy imagining it was Steve’s head caught in the driving wheel that was mentioned in the lyrics. She wasn’t sure what a driving wheel was, and the context clues from the song led her to deduce only that it had something to do with a train.

The song ended and was replaced by some soft rock songs. Melanie was staring out the window, gazing at the landscape flying by. Steve was working his way through their most recent candy purchase. They drove on like that for a while, each silently stewing, as they traveled into the forest, into the pines.

At some point Madeline fell asleep, ironically wondering what it was about traveling by automobile that made passengers so sleepy, and she only woke up once she realized the car was no longer moving. She sat up straighter, momentarily concerned by the pain in her shoulders and back. She regretted not clearing off the backseat and stretching out to really get comfortable. Madeline was going to turn and yell at Steve for stopping and for keeping all of his shit on the backseat. Apparently, the nap hadn’t eased her crankiness.

But when she turned to look for Steve, the driver, to see what was going on, he was no longer inside the car. That explained why they were stopped. Steve was standing outside the car, his door still open, so that all Madeline could see was his waist and legs. She asked him what was going on. She wanted to know why they had stopped.

Steve lowered himself so he and Madeline could make eye contact. He looked annoyed, but only mildly so. He encouraged Madeline to climb from the car and to see for herself. He then stood and resumed staring, dead set on offering Madeline nothing. She resigned herself to taking his advice and climbed from the car. More than curiosity, Madeline was eager to stretch out and ease the throbbing pain.

There was a train stopped on the tracks before them, but there was no closed gate with flashing red lights and there were no dinging bells. There was no aluminum sign painted bright yellow. There were no warning signs at all, which was incredibly weird. There were also no signs as to why the train was stopped. Madeline asked Steve what was going on, and he was a little crestfallen to admit that he didn’t know. Steve asked her if she saw anything weird.

From her current vantage point, Madeline thought everything looked perfectly normal. So Madeline took a couple of steps forward and then let loose a blood-curdling scream, knocking herself on her own ass. She scrambled backwards until she hit the front bumper of the car, screaming for Steve.

Steve rushed over, asking her what was wrong and if she was okay. Madeline didn’t have words, couldn’t find them at the moment, so she raised a trembling finger and only pointed at the driving wheel located directly in front of them. Inside was a severed human head. Its eyes were wide with shock and horror, most likely both, and its mouth was open to reveal toothless gums. Its hair was shaggy and its beard was curled just beneath its chin. It was grotesque and horrible and Madeline wanted to turn her face away and bury it in Steve’s firm chest, but he was moving closer to the train. He wanted a better look. Madeline told him he was a lunatic, and she tried to tell him this was just like the song, almost exactly like the song, but he wasn’t listening to her rambling.

Steve kept telling her to calm down and he walked closer to the train’s driving wheel with the surprise inside. At first, he thought some kind of improbable and horrific accident had occurred. It was, after all, a railroad crossing with no warning signs of any kind. Essentially, that made the place a death trap. But Steve and Madeline were okay, and Steve kept telling Madeline that. He looked closer and he realized that the victim wasn’t decapitated by the train because there was no way the head would be so in-tact, so pristine. Aside from the bulging eyes, the head looked like it could be reattached no problem and the guy could go back to dancing in no time.

The laceration that had separated the head from the body was neat and even, like it had been made by someone with steady feet and solid ground, operating with deliberateness, the way a lumberjack might begin to cut down a tree. Steve considered telling Madeline all of this to calm her down, but he was too confused and concerned by the scene, and there was no way telling her the specifics of the grotesque scene before them would have worked to comfort her anyway. He called over his shoulder to tell Madeline to get back in the car, but he kept his eyes on the severed head. He was desperate to know how the head came to be where it was, and he wanted to know if someone put it there, and most importantly he wanted to know why this was happening. He had no one to discuss things with, because all Madeline could do was gibber and cry and hold her disbelieving head in her hands.

Suddenly, the sound of a working chainsaw was louder than everything else. It came from the other side of the train, from just a few feet away, and it was enough to send Steve running to Madeline’s side. She was screaming hysterically again, had not moved from the front of the car, and he didn’t bother to shush her. Moving with urgency, he helped her to her feet and told Madeline the plan was to get the hell out of there, to get back to where there was cell phone service and he could call the police. Madeline nodded, unless she was shaking so bad it only looked like she was. Steve was being as gentle as he could, but he wanted to move fast.

Clutching each other as they rose, turning to walk to the passenger side, they were stopped dead in their tracks by the presence of a patrol car. The lights were flashing but there was no sound, and it was parked perpendicular to the road so that the scene was blocked from view and so that Madeline and Steve could not make any kind of exit. The chainsaw had cut off and the only sound seemed to be the sounds of their own breathing. Madeline asked who it was in a trembling voice, but Steve only shrugged. He whispered to Madeline to stay quiet; he was too busy wondering when they patrol car had pulled up, and why the officer hadn’t said anything.

Then the driver’s door of the patrol car clicked open. Madeline gasped and clung tighter to Steve. An imposing-looking man in a khaki uniform with a tell-tale gold star winking in the sunlight climbed from the car. He was wearing reflective aviators, the kind that cops in horror movies set in rural towns always seemed to wear. His mouth was a straight line and with his eyes hidden behind mirrors, it was impossible to tell what the lawman was thinking. Steve didn’t like the uncertainty of it all; Madeline could tell by the way he held onto her. She couldn’t blame him as she didn’t like the way the lawman was behaving. It didn’t make sense.

Instead of running over to see if the kids who had just discovered the severed head were okay, the officer stayed standing on the far side of his car, allowing it to separate him from the terrified couple before him. He greeted them with a thin smile, said howdy, and then asked them what the trouble was. Hadn’t he heard them scream?

Madeline might have laughed if she wasn’t so scared. Steve spoke from beside her, saying they were lost and happened upon the railroad tracks. He gulped before he added that there seemed to be a severed head in one of the driving wheels.

The officer nodded and stepped back from his patrol car, firmly shutting the door. He walked over to them and while doing so, he told them he knew about the situation, that someone had called it in only ten minutes ago. Then why would he have asked what the trouble was? Madeline twisted her head from one side to the other, searching for a nearby residence. There was nothing, just pine trees as far as the eye could see with only the serpentine road running through them. Who could have possibly called it in? Madeline didn’t want to believe the uniformed officer was lying, but what choice did she have? She pulled Steve closer, stopped just shy of climbing inside his shirt.

Steve didn’t say anything, only listened. He knew something was off, but the officer took the silence as a cue to keep talking. The officer told them this was the second severed head reported in just as many months. He explained that as long as he had been on the force, there’d been whispers and rumors about the Butcher Brothers.

The Butcher Brothers were a pair of brothers in matching overalls that didn’t go for shirts or shoes but expected superior service. The one thing they hated more than anything else in the entire world was being wronged, cheated, scammed. Anyone trying to put one over on them was an enemy to be annihilated. The Butcher Brothers deemed any kind of trickery as an insult to their intelligence, which honestly didn’t amount to much but still seemed to count for something to the Butcher Brothers.

The word on the street, or the unpaved roads that served as thoroughfares to and from the dying nearby town, was that the most recent victim (present company excluded) was supposed to bring the Butcher Brothers a car, some kind of rarity, a real collector’s item. The officer explained the car was a lemon, and that the whole deal was nothing more than a sham. The officer had been the one to find the head just a mile or so from where they now stood, and the body was just a few yards farther than that.

Madeline could barely listen, let alone look. All she saw was dark green fabric, and all she smelled was Steve’s cologne and cigarettes. She heard what the officer said, but she didn’t want to process any of it or understand any of it. Madeline only wanted to climb back inside the El Dorado with Steve at the wheel and drive home. She had been short with him, but she would take it all back, especially if he could get them home.

The officer was looking at them curiously, the way a housecat watches a fly she’s been mercilessly toying with instead of outright killing it. He took a few steps closer, and Madeline could hear his bootheels thud against the pavement with a soft but satisfying crunch. He rested his hands on his hips and took in a deep breath like he was settling in and getting comfortable. He asked where the flatfoots were from anyway.

Steve laughed without any humor and gulped. He said they were taking a road trip and were trying to do it the old-fashioned way with maps and atlases, but they got lost and all turned around. Steve asked if the officer would be kind enough to point them back to town and they’d be out of his way. The officer turned from the couple to survey the El Dorado. He asked what year the El Dorado was. Steve was shocked by the question. He couldn’t understand what the year of the car had to do with anything. He lied and said he didn’t know.

The officer didn’t say anything. He stepped even closer and had taken a particular interest in Madeline. He asked if the little lady was alright. Madeline didn’t answer, so Steve spoke up and told the officer seeing the severed head in the driving wheel of the train had understandably shaken her up. Steve continued and said Madeline’s distressing demeanor was all the more reason for them to get the hell out of dodge. He tried another laugh and this one sounded more authentic. Steve asked again for directions back to town.

The officer looked Madeline up and down and then he nodded slowly. He told them that if they went back the way they came, and made the first left onto a gravel road, it would take them all the way back to town. He tipped the hat on his head and walked back to his car so he could move it. Steve gingerly walked Madeline to the passenger side of the El Dorado, whispering a mile a minute that they were going to be okay and that they were going to make it through this as long as they stuck together and stayed calm. Once they were in the El Dorado, and the police cruiser was off to the side, Steve accelerated backwards and made a K-turn.

Madeline was crying softly and Steve promised her it was almost over. Hunched over the wheel, Steve was searching frantically for the turn off. Madeline asked why this was happening to them. Steve had no answers. All he could do was reach over and take Madeline’s hand in his. He brought it to his mouth and roughly kissed the back of it, promising against it was all right and that it would be all right.

In about ten minutes, Steve saw gravel and breathed a sigh of relief. He turned left, going deeper into the pines. The sound of the tires rolling across the tiny stones was music to his ears. To comfort Madeline, he released her hand and squeezed her thigh softly while smiling bright. Steve told Madeline they were on their way, and they’d be home before she knew it. He told her he’d get her whatever she wanted, whatever she needed. Steve told Madeline he’d spend the rest of his life making it up to her if he had to. Madeline turned to him with something like hope etched on her face.

But Steve slammed on the brakes as a wild-looking man came ambling out of the pines. He stopped in the center of the gravel road, forcing Steve to stop right where he was. The man, clad in ripped and filthy overalls but lacking a shirt and shoes, turned to face the car. A crooked, insane smile was plastered across his face and when he turned, he also raised a chainsaw high above his head.

Madeline and Steve screamed until their breath ran out. Madeline was hitting and slapping Steve, demanding that he get them the fuck out of there. Steve told her he was going as fast as he could, and as he turned to reverse, the second Butcher Brother slammed his fists on the trunk of the car. Steve hit his brakes once more and Madeline was beside herself. She was pulling at her own hair, imploring that he keep driving and if he killed the fucking psychopath behind them, then so be it.

The Butcher Brother behind the car scrambled to Madeline’s side of the car. He wrenched the door open before Madeline even knew what was happening. He reached for her hair and meant to pull her from the car. Steve held onto Madeline with one hand and accelerated forward, pushing the pedal down as far as it would go. The Butcher Brother in front of them dove out of the way and the one assaulting Madeline fell by the wayside as they sped forward.

Steve didn’t slow up one bit, not even so Madeline could shut her door. He sped until gravel met pavement. He sent the tiny rocks spewing into the air and the tires squealed as he made a hard left onto the highway. Cars beeped and drivers cursed him, but Steve kept driving for another ten miles or so, until they left the small town the Butcher Brothers called home.

The pair pulled into a gas station and parked beside a pump. Steve turned to Madeline and stupidly asked her if she was alright. Her forehead was bloodied, and her face was a mess of smeared mascara and snot. She looked so pitiful that Steve felt his breath catch in his throat. He thought he might cry. He took her into his arms and he apologized, and he kissed the top of her head. All Madeline said was that she wanted to go home.

The pair walked into the store attached to the gas station and asked to use the phone. The confused cashier handed over his own phone and asked if everything was okay. Madeline started crying again. Steve wrapped an arm around her and told the cashier he was calling the police because they had been attacked. The cashier paled and said he’d be back in a moment with the manager. Steve nodded and told the voice on the other end that he needed a patrol car immediately. He couldn’t say where he was, but he could tell the operator where they’d come from and what happened.

Madeline stepped away from Steve and towards the glass windows that made up the entrance of the store. There was a crowd gathering outside, gawking at the El Dorado with the dent in the trunk and the front doors open and the out of state plates. The police would come but Madeline didn’t think the crowd would disperse. If anything, she feared the crowd would grow and swell and then Steve and Madeline might never be able to leave.

But the police were able to make the crowd scatter. They promised to file an incident report and took their contact information to keep the pair updated on any future developments. Steve and Madeline were free to go. Steve purchased a carton of cigarettes and an atlas. Madeline purchased some candy and before they left, she took Steve’s picture beside the El Dorado. It was a handsome portrait, better than an album cover or average landscape.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.

On new projects and begging for feedback.

Good morning readers and writers and internet users! Hope all is well ❤

While I’m working to get my second manuscript, titled Moody Blue, published, I am also working on a new book! I’m sharing the prologue with you below, and I am DESPERATELY BEGGING for feedback! PLEASE let me know what you think!

Prologue

The only people who ever really cared about Duke, the only people who ever honestly gave a shit, were gone – one of them forever, a recent member of the dearly departed. The other was away, becoming a better human being who’d have no time for addicts who couldn’t stand to see their own faces in cracked bathroom mirrors. Duke was currently studying his own reflection in just such a mirror and recognized himself, but he hated it, hated the reflection. His hair was too long and his eyes were too red, and he wasn’t fucking high enough. He turned away from his face, sick of looking at his stupid, fucking face. There wasn’t much to like about Duke, and Duke knew that, but he didn’t want to have to face it day in and day out. He needed relief, which was why he self-medicated. He’d used all the heroin he’d had in the house, which was impressively more than usual, but now it was gone and he had to rely on alcohol.

Duke didn’t want to rely on anything anymore; or anyone, for that matter. Come to think of it, Duke didn’t think he even wanted to be in the house anymore, either. Bottle of whiskey clenched tight in his fist, Duke stumbled over to the small coffee table by the front door. His keys were laying there and he reached to grab them. The world seemed to tilt as he did so, and the wooden table went crashing to the floor, taking two picture frames with it. Duke grabbed the corner of the wall to keep from falling completely. Had his other hand been free, he might have been successful, but that damn bottle wouldn’t let go of his hand. Whiskey splashed all over him as he went down hard on his ass. Cursing loudly, he threw the bottle at the nearest wall. Duke watched the glass shatter, seemingly from the inside out, and he saw the tiny shards explode into the light and catch it. The glass metamorphosed into stars and Duke watched, transfixed. The cuts the stars inflicted on his cheeks went unnoticed, were inconsequential. Duke watched the glass fall until it all lay on the floor.

His discarded, cold, metallic keys winked at him. Duke suddenly remembered he had to leave. He crawled to gather his keys, cutting his palms on the fallen stars from just moments before. Scooping up the keys, Duke rose shakily to his feet and made his way out through his front door. He left the door open behind him so that it resembled a large, gaping mouth, howling in pain and protest. Duke also left a bloody palm print on its face, cackling wildly and falling three times before he was sitting behind the wheel of his yellow Cadillac Seville from 1987. He’d bought it cheap off Matt to replace Uncle Rick’s rusted Ford because Duke couldn’t bear to drive it. Duke couldn’t bear to sell it, either. He didn’t want it but he couldn’t let go, and that, ladies and germs, was the story of his life.

The engine came to life loudly, but the radio was louder. It was Bruce Springsteen, singing “Atlantic City” with a supreme kind of melancholy that just fit the moment. Duke’s face fell and became serious as he thought hard, carefully considering everything making up the moment. He suddenly had a destination in mind: Aurora’s dorm, and he’d have to get there fast, or it’d be too late. He’d have to race the devils brewing within him to reach Aurora before she realized she was not only better than Duke, but better off without him as well. He backed out onto Broadway Boulevard, neatly knocking his mailbox to the ground. Duke was indifferent to it, sped down the quiet residential streets until he hit the highway. It was when he was pulling onto the ramp for the Garden State Parkway, heading north, when it happened: the accident. Duke took the ramp too fast, at seventy miles an hour, and the car rolled over and over, leaving the pavement to tumble down a grassy hill before slamming into the trees.

Duke lay bleeding, inside and out, for a devastating ten minutes before someone finally saw the mess and called the proper authorities. The Boss was still growling through the speakers to no one in particular. “Everything dies, baby; that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”


Aurora had just drifted to sleep after a late night of paper writing. It had been interesting at least, discussing what it means to be human through the novels Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Aurora thought college was pretty cool. She was happy in college. Even sleeping, she was happy. It all felt right and Aurora had discovered she was right where she was supposed to be.

She awoke with a start from Bruce Springsteen suddenly proclaiming triumphantly that tramps were born to run from her cell phone. She scrambled to answer it, not wanting to wake her cranky roommate, so she didn’t even pause to see who was calling. “Hello?” she croaked.

“It’s Matt. You’ve got to come home. I’ll come get you if you want, but you gotta get back here.”

Aurora sat up in bed. “Matt, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Duke’s had an accident with my car and it’s not looking good. Christ.” Matt paused. “He’s dying.”

The tears came surprisingly fast, before Aurora could even really understand all that Matt was saying. “Matt, I … um, I’ll come home right now. I’ll call you when I’m close.”

“Are you okay to drive? I shouldn’t be telling you like this, I’m sorry. I didn’t know who else to call. He doesn’t have anyone else,” Matt said. His voice cracked at the end and Aurora heard him swallow, likely to keep from crying. There was another pause. “I can –“

“I’ll be there soon, Matt. I’m on my way. Just call me if anything changes, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course.”

“Okay, I’m on my way.” Aurora hung up before Matt could say goodbye. Throwing the covers back, she got moving, had to keep moving to keep her mind occupied. Aurora tossed clothes thoughtlessly into a duffel bag, not pausing to think about Duke being dead, not being around, not being Duke anymore. The thought of him scarred and bloody, and slowly becoming pale and cold, was enough to render her useless, but goddammit, she didn’t have time for hysterics. Aurora couldn’t curl up into a ball on the floor and sob like she wanted to. Slipping flip flops onto her frantic feet, Aurora threw open the door to her room, hurried down the hallway and bolted down the stairs. Her duffel bag and purse swung heavily as she ran to her car, so she was thankful she had forgotten her book bag. There wasn’t time for stupid, fucking homework. She had to have enough time to say goodbye.

Normally, it’d take Aurora over an hour to travel back home from the college. That night, it barely took her forty-five minutes.


Matt met Aurora in the parking garage of the hospital and escorted her inside, explaining to her in hushed tones that Duke’s condition was improving, miraculously so, and that they needed to remain cautious but could afford to be optimistic. They seated themselves in terribly uncomfortable vinyl-covered chairs and waited.

And waited.

Matt stood and walked a few paces to stretch his legs and ease his aching back. “He’s been in surgery for two and a half hours now.” Matt leaned against the cool glass framing the operating room. He hadn’t really looked at Aurora since she’d arrived.

“What happened?” Aurora asked. She was trembling.

“He was high as fuck and tried to get on the parkway.” Matt was silent after that, listening to Aurora sob softly behind him. He did not reach out to her, did not offer to hold her or console her or anything. Aurora wasn’t mad about it. She knew they were both drowning in misery and that neither of them was strong enough to hold the other one up, at least not yet.

Two crippling hours went by, during which Duke emerged from his surgery and all his friends could do was wait until he woke up. When he did wake up, the doctor came and told Aurora and Matt, but the doctor also said that Duke was not out of the woods yet and that it would be some time before he could see visitors.

Matt yawned and stretched, and turned towards Aurora. “You gonna go home?”

Aurora shook her head and rubbed her eyes. Mascara was smeared all underneath her eyes and she knew she must have looked awful. “I don’t want to be too far, just in case …” Her voice trailed off as her mind traveled to horrendous possibilities, just the worst of the worst. She cleared her throat to find her voice and said, “You know, just in case something happens. I guess.” She swallowed hard.

“I get that, but you look like shit,” Matt said with a laugh that was more forced than anything else. “You need to sleep, and if you won’t do that, then you need to eat.” Matt studied her for a moment. “Let me take you to get some food.”

“I don’t want to go too far, you know, in case-“

“There’s a diner right down the road,” Matt interrupted. “We won’t be too far and we won’t be too long. You can just guzzle some coffee or something. Let’s go.”

Aurora sighed heavily. There was no real reason for her not to go, so she acquiesced and didn’t even protest when Matt bent to retrieve her purse.

In the few minutes it took for Matt to drive them to the local diner, Aurora fell asleep. She thought she knew what it was to be exhausted, but she was wrong. Matt reached over, gently grabbed Aurora’s shoulder and shook her awake. Aurora was momentarily confused and simply sat, staring at Matt with bleary eyes until she blinked slowly, stupidly. Matt laughed and it was a pleasant, genuine sound. It felt good to be out of the hospital, removed from the sterile, suffocating tragedy. “We’re here,” Matt smiled. “Need a minute? I can go in and get a table.”

Aurora nodded after she yawned loudly, somewhat obnoxiously, and stretched and rubbed her eyes, mascara be damned. “Yeah, sure.” She looked at Matt seriously. “Can I bum a cigarette?”

Matt snorted. “Since when do you smoke?”

“I’ve become quite cultured since I’ve been away at college, I’ll have you know,” Aurora said. She rolled her eyes but smiled partly to let Matt know she wasn’t really annoyed, and partly because she was pleased to have surprised her longtime friend, happy to have actually changed something about herself. Aurora didn’t want to waste her “college experience” by adhering to a behavioral code that had suited her in her small hometown, in a comfortable environment void of any really challenges and thereby void of any real personal growth. Aurora couldn’t elaborate, couldn’t say any of this to Matt, because he was born in Ocean Gate, still lived in Ocean Gate, and would most likely die in Ocean Gate without ever feeling stuck or disappointed or unfulfilled. So Aurora just looked at him expectantly.

“I guess so,” Matt smiled, but eyed Aurora warily. He reached for his pack of cigarettes in his coat pocket. “I wonder what other morals Little Miss Perfect has let fall to the wayside.” Matt was half-serious and hesitated just a moment more before suddenly pressing the pack close against his chest. “Tell you what; a real gentleman never lets a lady smoke alone.” He offered her a wink before a cigarette, and she was definitely more interested in the cigarette. She slid one delicately from the crowded pack (it was brand new; Matt had stopped on his way to the hospital, correctly figuring that the combination of caffeine, nicotine, prayers and Aurora was the only combination to get him through whatever lay ahead) and thanked Matt graciously. He did the same, lit Aurora’s and then his own with the green lighter he stole from Duke at a house party a month earlier. The pair of lifelong friends both took long, deep drags and exhaled slowly, just breathing and thinking in the silence, which is really all most humans are capable of in times of crisis; the normal ones, anyway, very much unlike the heroes that make the paper or the evening news.

“Where was he going?” Aurora asked.

“What?”

She took another drag of her cigarette, realizing too late the question was better suited for being posed after sleep, after a shower and over alcohol. Ironically, she was too tired to care and continued. “Where was Duke going?”

Matt paused. He too pulled on his cigarette before he spoke. “Damned if I know,” Matt said without looking at her.

Aurora’s shoulders were heavy with skepticism. “You didn’t talk to him at all that day? Seriously? You expect me to believe that?”

“He was fucked up,” Matt said. He was rubbing his forehead and continuing to avoid making eye contact. “We talked, maybe, but he was high as hell. What he was saying probably didn’t even make sense, you know?”

“But he was saying something wasn’t he? Isn’t that what you just said?”

Matt groaned. “He was upset by the same old things he always complains about, drank too much and God knows what else, and decided he was finally going to get out of town.”

“But –“

“Jesus Christ, Rory! What do you want me to say? Do you really need me to point out the obvious, that you’re the only person he’d ever visit off the parkway? What could- I mean, how could that possibly matter? Fuck off if you’re going to make this about you,” Matt said. He had exploded and been unfair, cruel even. Somewhere deep down inside, Rory knew Matt could blame his exhaustion, his stress and heartbreak, but none of it could excuse the way he had attacked her, using her nickname and reminding her of how personal everything was. The car was filling with a shocked silence.

Rory grabbed her oversized purse and gracelessly climbed out of Matt’s car. She slammed the door behind her to truly emphasize the exit and it echoed in the silence of the early morning. She marched angrily down the sidewalk outside the front of the diner. She stopped at the bottom of the concrete stairs that led to the entrance, an entrance marked by ever glowing neon lights and double glass doors. She had yet to flick away the cigarette burning slowly between two fingers and her free hand pushed her wild hair from her eyes. She turned away from the diner’s entrance, turning towards the parking lot, slowly realizing there really wasn’t any other place for her to go. She was suffering from the same exhaustion and stress and heartbreak Matt felt, but there was something more, something like confusion and a little bit like guilt since she knew Duke had been trying to get to her. Rory started crying, crying really hard, alone in a parking lot in the gray light before dawn. It was a pitiful sight, especially when Rory wrapped her arms around herself to keep from completely going to pieces. Forgotten, the cigarette was still burning down between her two fingers.

Matt climbed from the car, slipping his keys in his pocket and nudging his door shut with his hip. He called Rory’s name, but she turned away as he jogged over to her. All she offered Matt was her back. “Rory, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was an asshole.”

“Leave me alone.” Her response was cold and clipped.

“I’m mean when I’m stressed,” Matt explained as he halted a few paces behind Rory. “I’m tired and sad and didn’t want to answer your questions.”

“I don’t care.”

“Oh, come on, Rory,” Matt pleaded. He grabbed her shoulder and spun her around to face him. “I didn’t mean it, okay?”

“I feel so bad,” she sobbed. “I feel so goddam guilty because I left him. His uncle was murdered and I just went back to school, back to my own little world, like he didn’t just lose everything he had.” The tears gushed uncontrollably and made her nearly impossible to understand. “I’m supposed to be his best friend and I abandoned him. And I am selfish and I do make everything about me, but he still wanted to see me.” Shuddering, shivering, she said, “As messed up as he was, he still wanted to see me.” The cigarette finally fell from her fingers and she broke. Rory brought her hands to her face, sad and shamed and tired, and Matt took her into his arms.

Matt shushed her. “You can’t feel guilty. I know it’s easy for me to say that, but you didn’t put those keys in his hand or that bottle in his mouth.” He pushed her away from him so he could see her face, but still held her by the shoulders. “You can’t- I mean, you just can’t beat yourself up over this. You’re his friend and you love him, and that’s enough, okay? That’s enough.”

“I do love him,” Rory sobbed, collapsing back into Matt’s arms. “I love him so much, and he’s such a fucking idiot.”

Matt laughed softly and tried to soothe her further by gently rubbing her back. They stayed like that for some time, not saying anything, happy just to be held until the sky turned rosy gold. They headed inside the diner, and over coffee and pancakes, they talked about anything and everything but Duke.


They returned to the hospital a few hours later. Duke was awake but wouldn’t be allowed visitors until the evening. Matt used the time to sleep and shower, but Rory stayed put, dozing across a few chairs for 30 minutes at a time, pacing up and down the hallway, and chugging coffee incessantly. When the doctor came to find her and tell her she could see Duke for just a few minutes, Rory did her best to patiently listen to the doctor; he advised her to speak softly and stay calm. Rory did her best to follow him to Duke’s room as normally as she could but it was a struggle. She wanted to sprint to Duke’s bedside and hold him, and if she broke down yet again, then so be it. But she already felt responsible for Duke’s current physical state. If she were to make it worse, she would not be able to live with herself Rory found herself panicked into silence as the doctor excused himself and shut the door softly behind him. Rory’s breath caught in her throat.

“Aurora,” Duke breathed. He was the only one to use her full name, not even her parents did, and the sound of it nearly caused her to collapse. “You look like shit,” Duke added, soft and low, after using only his eyes to survey Rory. He laughed but it was almost inaudible.

Rory stepped forward, trying to stay composed. She remembered herself after a moment and offered a disappointing smile. “Like you’re one to talk.” The impending silence made the air heavy between them. “I only have a few minutes, but he said I could come back tomorrow.”

Duke nodded, breathed in and out. “I know,” he said.

Rory moved to the side of the bed and delicately took Duke’s hand in both of her own. “But I’ll stay for as long as you need me, for as long as it takes to get you well.” She bent forward and kissed his forehead, then she lovingly kissed his cheek. Trying not to start crying, she let her cheek lay against Duke’s for a few silent, precious moments. “I love you,” she said.

Duke stared straight ahead, blinking furiously. He wanted to say it back and even felt he needed to say it back, but he didn’t trust himself to speak at the moment. He was grateful to be alive and grateful to be loved, especially by someone like Rory, but he was ashamed he’d been willing to throw it all away. He was also terrified of what lay ahead, that he might make such mistakes again. He was sure he didn’t deserve this precious moment with a beautiful woman, this miraculous second chance. Everything he felt and believed he had to consider was overwhelming and he knew his voice would be affected as a result, and sound shaky and overcome with emotion. Duke didn’t want that, not anymore. He wanted to be strong. He didn’t want to be a burden. Duke took a few deep, steadying breaths before he finally said, “I love you too.”

Rory straightened up and looked down at Duke with a soft, sad smile that Duke suddenly wanted to violently smash. He didn’t want to be pitied – that idea had not flown once sobriety arrived. Duke knew that wasn’t fair, but he didn’t have the energy or the knowledge to fix it, so he shut his eyes tight against it and lazily allowed his head to roll to the side.

Poor Rory didn’t know what to make of it. So she said, “I’ll let you rest and come back later with Matt. We’ll get Eric over here, too.” Duke said nothing nor did he move. “Bye Duke,” was Rory’s lame response to his silence before she hurried from the room.

Duke lay there, absolutely loathing himself until he fell asleep.


Rory and Matt returned the next day, sometime in the early afternoon. Rory had smuggled in one of those milkshakes you mix yourself from the local convenience store and she was thrilled to find Duke in much better spirits. She gave the milkshake most of the credit.

The three friends avoided speaking of the past at all costs and focused on the future, on Duke’s next move. Rory offered to clean out Duke’s house, which he had inherited from his recently departed uncle. So one day while Duke was still recovering in the hospital, she emptied and disposed of all the liquor bottles and syringes, moving from room to room, carefully inspecting each for hiding places both clever and obvious. Matt helped, dutifully following Rory from room to room as an extra pair of eyes and as an extra pair of strong and sturdy hands. Rory changed the sheets on Duke’s bed and turned up the heat so it’d be warm and cozy upon his return.

Rory vacuumed the broken glass, removed the wooden shards, and cleaned the bloody palm print from beside the front door. It was almost as if Duke had never left that night, but only almost.

Duke saw the results of Rory and Matt’s efforts just a few days later when he was finally released from the hospital and able to come home. His breath moved in and out in shuddery spasms as Rory pushed his wheelchair over the threshold of his home. It was the same, but it was also entirely different.

Once inside, Duke opted to wheel himself around. He moved from room to room in the same way Matt and Rory had, but it was unclear what it was Duke was searching for. His face was immoveable and his expression was impossible to read. Matt and Rory contented themselves with following just a few paces behind. They were intrinsically and inexplicably cautious, anticipating some kind of outburst from their stormily silent friend. Both assumed his stoicism was only temporary, but Duke kept on keeping on. When he wheeled himself into his bedroom, all Duke said was, “New sheets.”

“Yeah,” Rory lamely ventured. She paused to clear her throat. “They’re a higher thread count and I got you a heavy comforter.” She smiled but it was nervous and queasy. “You need to be able to relax in here if nowhere else.”

Duke raised his chin to indicate a bizarre looking light upon the end table on the left side of the bed. “Is that what that’s for?”

Rory stepped forward, a dull, pulsing heat rising in her cheeks. “That’s a sea-salt lamp,” she explained. “They’re supposed to reduce stress and anxiety. They’re very trendy.” Again, she tried to smile, tried to be light and natural and normal. But again, all she managed was awkward and forced and lame.

“Oh,” was Duke’s response. He looked around the room once more before deciding to leave.

Matt stepped to the side to allow Duke to roll past, but then he lingered where he was. He waited until Duke was out of earshot before he asked Rory what the fuck Duke’s problem was. Matt explained that Duke was being an epic kind of douche bag and had been that way since they’d left the hospital, and Matt was willing to chalk it up to a million different reasons, but if it was something as simple as sober Duke was an asshole and nothing more, then Matt wasn’t entirely sure what he’d do. When Rory offered nothing in response, Matt asked in a harsh, hissing whisper, “What the hell is his problem?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Matt,” Rory hissed back, functioning at an extreme level of sarcasm. “Maybe he’s pissed he’s stuck in a wheelchair and maybe he feels useless and worthless because he’s going to be out of work for a long time.”

“Eric will hold his job-“

“Maybe there’s no money coming in and all kinds of money going out and he’s worried. There’s medical bills and court fees and prescriptions and regular bills and groceries-“

“The inheritance will keep him comfortable for at least-“

“ –all of that on top of severe physical pain, not to mention what extreme mental and emotional-“

“Okay, okay!” Matt exploded, no longer whispering. “I get it, alright?” He sighed heavily and turned, prepared to finally follow Duke down the hallway. Before he was out of reach, before he was too many steps ahead, Rory reached forward and gave Matt’s hand a reassuring, encouraging squeeze. They were all Duke had, so they could only be sympathetic; or at the very least, that was Rory’s understanding of the situation.

So once Duke was on the road to recovery and absolutely all of the damage could be assessed, Matt stopped dropping by everyday (though he did check in on a daily basis). Rory was more devoted, as she always had been and always would be; she went food shopping, drove Duke to all of his appointments and anywhere else he needed to be, cooked dinners at least once a week, stayed on top of the bills and let Duke know which money was due when. She took care of her best friend until he was able to get around without assistance and was cleared to drive, which was well after the spring semester had ended and well into the beginning of the following fall semester. Rory never registered for classes and much to the chagrin of those who knew and loved her (Duke included), she never returned to school.

Rory moved back in with her parents because the rent was free and she was only blocks away from Duke, so when he needed pain relief in the dead of night or when he woke sweating and screaming from god awful nightmares, she could be on her way before Duke even hung up the phone. It was a perfect situation until her parents started to get pushy about school, until her parents asked her pointed questions about exactly what she was sacrificing and for whom, until she could no longer ignore the valid points her parents raised during difficult discussions that rapidly increased in frequency. Rory had to run away, to shove it all down and away, because that was easiest even if it wasn’t best. With the last of her student loan money, she paid the first and last month’s rent for a quaint, absolutely adorable apartment less than two blocks from the bay. And since she was well-known, and more importantly well-liked, Rory had no trouble getting hired at the local tavern and in the two years that followed, she was able to work her way from hostess to bartender. Between the tips from the regular customers who adored her and the tutoring jobs she scheduled on the side, she made ends meet. It was a quiet, simple kind of life.

And Duke never asked her about it.

He knew that if he thought about it too hard for too long, or if he thought about it at all, he’d begin to feel responsible for nearly all of Rory’s wasted talent and potential. If he thought about it, he’d begin to develop a very real fear of Rory’s eventual and inevitable resentment once she realized Duke was quite content to keep her trapped, regardless of how content Rory might be to be trapped. In Duke’s defense, Rory never said anything about any of it; she just let the situation be what it was. So the all-important conversation about what it all meant for both parties involved never came up. In all the hours spent nursing Duke back to health, spent helping Duke regain mobility and independence and a sense of identity, neither him or Rory talked about the constantly advancing September or points beyond.

It was what it was.

feedback-2313803_960_720

On the critic in your head, and the external critics who try to get in your head.

muppet-critics

 

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. The first time I thought I had any real talent, or any real future with writing, was when I was in the third grade (if you can believe it). We had a homework assignment having to do with vocabulary, and I wrote a poem using the entire list of vocabulary words. My mom liked the poem, but made me complete the assignment the exact way the teacher assigned it so I wouldn’t lose credit or get in trouble (good lookin’ out, Ma!). I brought both versions of the assignment to school, and my teacher FREAKED out. He loved the poem and signed me up for a local young author’s conference.

But third grade was FOREVER ago (or at least very much feels that way) and other moments of validation have been few and far between. I did publish a novel, but it was with an incredibly small press and there was no publicity, so I don’t think anyone read it outside of my social network. And they all seemed to like it, but would any of them really tell me otherwise?

And that brings me to the main topic of today’s post:

Ten Obstacles Every New* Writer Faces
(by new, I mean any writer not firmly established)

  1. Self doubt!
    My biggest obstacle, without question, is self doubt. It plagues me every time I write anything at all, and it is a struggle to persevere against the nagging suspicion that I’m no good and people are just nice. I do my best and remind myself I was published and people did enjoy my book and that people do enjoy this blog. I remind myself as often as I can that I am talented, that my writing is worthy of praise, and that I have something important to say.

    I think it’s important to note that even wildly successful, established writers suffer from self doubt. I absolutely adore Nic Pizzolatto’s work. He’s the mastermind behind “True Detective,” the HBO original series. The first season is pretty much universally lauded as a masterpiece, and I agree. I’ve re-watched the first season more times than I care to admit, and I find something else to love about it. It inspired me to read “Galveston” (Pizzolatto’s novel) and “Between Here and the Yellow Sea” (Pizzolatto’s collection of short stories). I highly recommend both, as Pizzolatto tells fresh stories with a love of language. His prose, while dark, is beautiful and cerebral. Hence, I was pumped when the second season of “True Detective” was announced, especially upon learning the cast included Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Vince Vaughn.

    But the second season is pretty much universally lauded as garbage (though I think history will be kinder than the current climate of critics). There were so many plot lines and so many characters that nothing ever felt authentically fleshed out, and the ending was deeply unsatisfying. I was shocked; how could something so good turn so bad? I did some research, and came across an article that Pizzolatto was deeply affected by the criticisms of the first season and wrote the second season as a response. Instead of guarding his art, he lost his voice.

    I am by no means passing judgement. I doubt I’d operate much differently. So when season three was announced, I was more than skeptical. I had no expectations, really. And boy, was I pleasantly surprised. Season three is a subtle, nuanced narrative that is delicately crafted to expose the many problems that come from the passing of time, failing memories, and the choices people make with no regard for future consequences. I was particularly impressed by Stephen Dorff’s performance and have convinced myself I am in love with him (check out this article). Particularly in the last couple of episodes, Dorff shined and added a human element that was more palpable and tangible than what the main story line had to offer.

    Granted, the third season had definite parallels to the first season, and I suppose it could be argued that Pizzolatto simply reverted back to what worked instead of venturing into new literary territory, but I call bullshit. Good storytelling is good storytelling, in my opinion, and Pizzolatto is a master storyteller. But everyone’s a critic, right? Entertainment Weekly gave the finale a C rating and wrote a hit piece, specifically blasting a heartbreaking scene featuring Dorff. I read it angrily, remembering that scene from season one when Woody Harrelson accuses Matthew McConaughey of shitting on any moment of human decency. Instead, I offer Esquire’s excellent write up of Dorff’s performance, which can be found here.

    But I digress; back to the list.

  2. Naivete!
    When I first seriously started writing, I thought everything would be easy and happen in a predictable pattern. I thought everyone I encountered genuinely believed in me and my talent. However, I have learned the hard way that some people just want to stroke their own egos and make money, and some people have no problem doing that at the expense of a young writer.
  3. It costs money to make money, even as a writer!
    The greatest asset as a writer, other than the obvious necessity of talent, is a professional network. It really helps you get your foot in the door if you know someone. I know no one, so to start making connections and contacts, I began attending conferences, which is really the only way to go. Unfortunately, attending legitimate conferences where you can meet agents and editors and other serious writers costs money. I’ve been to two legitimate conferences, and they cost $3,000 each. That cost does not include travel and lodging and other incidentals, and that can be difficult to manage on an average salary, which leads me right to my next point…
  4. It takes time!
    It takes patience to finish a novel, send it out to agents and publishers, and wait to hear back. But it also takes time to hone the craft, to read and to write. It takes time to travel to conferences. I had to request time off from work for both of the conferences I attended, and I know I am blessed that doing so wasn’t problematic. I’m sure there are some writers, working full-time as something else, who wouldn’t be afforded the same luxury. I realized that writing takes serious time, and needs to be prioritized. I need to start turning down invitations and stay off Candy Crush and social media to get writing done. I have to choose my writing over other obligations, even those that involve my job, because it is my true passion and what I love to do. That’s a daunting commitment, especially when it’s easier to make excuses and not take the risk of pursuing a passion.
  5. Writer’s Block!
    I never thought it would happen to me. I’m bursting with ideas! I’m eager to tell stories! But when I sit down at the computer, sometimes, nothing comes. The cursor just blinks and I just sit there, blinking, and anything I type is deleted because it’s awful. Stress and exhaustion create Writer’s Block, and at times, there is just no avoiding it.
  6. Priorities!
    I won’t repeat myself, as I touched upon this idea in #4, but writing must be a priority. I thought I could have my cake and eat it too, that I could write while having a life. But as I grow older, I realize writing must be a part of my life. I have to do it everyday and pursue agents tenaciously. I can’t put it off and use the excuse that I’m living and experiencing things to enrich my narratives – it can’t be one or the other.
  7. Advice!
    I’m a transcendentalist, so I believe people mean well. When I’m given advice about my writing, whether it be the content or the logistics of getting published, I patiently listen and express my gratitude for the concern and input. But I’ve realized it has to go in one ear and out the other. People are people are people; no two human beings are the same, so no two writers are the same and no two writers are going to have the same exact path to publication. And no two writers are going to have the same art. I’m learning to guard my art, to trust that I know the best way to tell my story, so I’m leery when it comes to advice.
  8. Finding a tribe!
    It’s easier to make writing a space in my life if I talk to and hang out with fellow writers and artists. I recommend finding a writing group, or a book club, or even just one person who will talk shop with you.
  9. Marketing/promoting!
    Writers can often be introverts and have trouble selling themselves and their works. Luckily, I’m an extrovert. I’ll talk to anyone about anything. I’m incredibly friendly. But I don’t know the first thing about promoting a novel. I didn’t do any marketing for my novel because I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know who to ask (and this goes back to naivete). A writer friend of mine has a publisher who’s handling all that for him, and I am so excited for him.
  10. Staying relevant (releasing new material)!
    It takes time to be published, so in between releases, how does a writer stay relevant? This blog is one way, but I want to be able to keep my writing in the spotlight. I’m considering publishing a chapbook of poetry I created using magnetic poetry (I post them on my Instagram, here). Self-publishing costs money, though it may save time, so I’m considering all my options.

Was the list helpful? Was there something I missed? Did you hate season three of “True Detective”? Leave a comment and let’s start a conversation!

On celebrating myself (but in a less grandiose manner than Walt Whitman).

My whole life, or at least that’s the way it seems, I’ve been desperate for love. All I want, and all I have ever wanted, is to be loved. I think that’s why I allow myself to constantly be used and mistreated because I believe that in order for people to love me, I have to give them whatever they ask for. But that’s not love. I don’t think I really know what love is. I don’t love myself; if I did, I wouldn’t let people use me and I would understand that I still have value even if others don’t think so. I surround myself, mostly, with people who temporarily need me, thinking it will grow into some kind of permanence but unfortunately, it rarely does.

If I really loved myself, I wouldn’t always assume there’s something wrong with me and try to take the blame when things fall apart. Why is it so hard for me to consider that I’m not always the bad guy? It is a real possibility that people out there are mean, plain and simple. If not mean, then self-serving. I have never been like that, and I don’t think it’s the worst thing if I start to be a little more self-interested.

My plan for this week’s entry was to talk about how I celebrate when my book is completed. But when I sat down to write this out, I realized I don’t really celebrate when I finish a manuscript, although to be fair, I’ve only done this twice so far. I feel all this pressure to revise and send it out to agents, like it doesn’t count as “completed” until it’s published. In typing that last sentence, I realize that’s an effect of my somewhat toxic “all or nothing” mentality. I should start celebrating the completion of drafts and manuscripts. I should get my nails done and go shopping – self-care is always a good idea. And I need ideas other than food; I’m too much of an emotional eater and no good has come from it. I’ve been on a diet and exercise plan and have had a rough two weeks of it: the week before last I only lost 2 ounces, and this week I gained 3 pounds. If I’m honest with myself, that last result shouldn’t be a surprise. I mean, I moved way less and cheated on my diet on 5 out of 7 days of the week. I get so frustrated with myself because if I have the willpower and the stamina to write novel, why can’t I have the same dedication to taking care of myself? Or to love myself?

So yeah; I will celebrate when my next book is completed by taking care of myself.
What about my fellow writers out there? What do you do to celebrate when you finish a book?

Tips for Better Self-Care:

  • Know your worth!
    As evidenced by the content of this post, I’m making a concerted effort to highlight the better parts of myself. But I’m also careful not to ignore the parts that need work. I just need to be patient with myself because, as I need to remind myself, I love myself.
  • A healthy work-life balance.
    Two years ago, I stopped taking work home with me on the weekends. I also stopped staying later than what was contractually mandated (barring extenuating circumstances). It helped me start to navigate away from that toxic “all or nothing” mentality I referenced earlier; my life is not all work and nothing else, and it is not all play and nothing else. I’m managing a healthy balance.
  • Stress management!
    THIS IS SO IMPORTANT! A few years ago, I was getting debilitating migraines that attacked my speech and vision and memory. There were like small strokes, and I went to see a neurologist. When the scans came back clean, the neurologist explained I was suffering from complex migraines that were brought on by stress! I started exercising more and limiting caffeine and writing more. I’m proud to say I haven’t had an episode in over a year.
  • Start living, stop existing!!
    I’m still working on this one. I’m making a resolution, right here and now, to have adventures, even if I have to go solo.
  • Better physical health!
    … and I’m still working on this one.

And here are Ten Tips for Happier Living:
1. Go for a run or a light jog.
I’m working up to this; I’m walking two miles every other day. When I feel up to it, I’ll start lightly jogging. 
2. Meditate or do deep breathing for five minutes.
3. Take a break when you need it.
4. Choose who you spend time with.
5. Laugh heartily at least once a day.
6. Eat green daily.
I’m working up to this; I’m doing a lot of research about the Mediterranean Diet.
7. Avoid emotional eating!!
I emphasized this one because I STRUGGLE to avoid emotional eating.
8. Start a journal.
Check and check! I have TONS.
9. Learn to say “No.”
I’m working on this one, too.
10. Stop overthinking.
So difficult for me! I think this might be an occupational hazard for many writers, so I researched ways to stop overthinking:
Notice when you’re thinking too much.
Acknowledge these thoughts are not productive.
Challenge your thoughts.
Acknowledge that your thoughts may be exaggeratedly negative.
Keep the focus on active problem-solving.
Look for solutions, don’t dwell on problems.
Schedule time for reflection.
20 minutes of “thinking time”
Practice mindfulness.

But how does one practice mindfulness?
Take a seat
Set a time limit
Notice your body
Feel your breath
Notice when your mind has wandered
Be kind to your wandering mind

I hope these tips prove beneficial for other writers up there who are trying to improve their respective head spaces. And once I finish this current project, I’ll invite you all to my celebration, I promise.

self-care

On older but not wiser.

As people age, we’re supposed to get smarter – or at least jaded by life experiences, which are assumed to be universally disappointing. The weird thing is that no one wants to grow up. No one really wants knowledge or to face consequences or be responsible. I guess I’m aiming for a happy medium. Last night, I wrote in my journal that I wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City.” I think she’s an appropriate role model for a woman of 30. She’s fiscally irresponsible and endearingly stupid when it comes to men, but she respects deadlines and is a writer. So maybe I’m just validating her picture on my fridge, but it’s interesting to think about, isn’t? There’s this pressure from social media to be altruistic and to be who you needed when you were younger, but just because we’re older, do we stop needing people? Shouldn’t we just be the type of people we think we need?

Do we even know what we need?

Being a human being is hard at any age. I don’t think it gets easier as we get older, but I think we develop a better perspective and that can change our attitude towards growing up.

I’m about a third of the way through final revisions for my manuscript, MOODY BLUE. The goal is to send it to agents I spoke with at the conference in June next week. Wish me luck!

carriebradshaw

#2.2019: Hidden Away on the Inside of a Jacket

The sky was an uninteresting shade of gray. Michelle eyed it warily through the kitchen window as she let the faucet run, waiting for the water to get warm before she started the dishes. She had removed her rings, her engagement ring, her wedding ring, and the blue sapphire with the gold band she had inherited from her grandmother, and placed them carefully on the window ledge above the sink. The windows looked out over the backyard, an especially desolate scene at the end of a bitterly cold January. Thinking of warmer and greener climates, she sighed as the front door was swung open.
Michelle spun to see William entering the home, closing the front door firmly behind him against the rising wind. On the television earlier that day, the meteorologist had looked very serious indeed, with his shirtsleeves rolled above the elbows, as he warned of the impending squall. Michelle Googled the definition on her phone and was glad she had taken the day off. Her fever had been mild and her cough had not returned, but a day spent mostly beneath the covers had done her a world of good. She hurried to William, smiling, and offering to take his coat. “Is it bad out there?” she asked.
William nodded, blowing on his hands as he rubbed them together. “Yeah, and it’s getting worse.” He kissed her forehead. “How are you feeling?”
Michelle kissed his lips. “Much better. I probably would have survived a day at the office, but traveling in this cold also could have knocked me right back on my ass, you know?”
“You never take days off anyway. You deserved it,” William said and squeezed her shoulders gently as he passed into the living room. He sat to take off his shoes and Michelle turned to the closet to hang his coat up for him. “Is there beer in the fridge?” William asked as his voice sounded farther away. Michelle assumed he was on his way to the fridge.
“Of course,” Michelle called. She hung his coat and smoothed it lovingly with her palms. It was a stylish, expensive coat Michelle had bought William for his 35th birthday. He looked absolutely perfect in it, and she was glad she had married a handsome man. She thought about his strong body and full head of hair, but as her hands passed over the coat, she felt a lump. Michelle was worried William had left his car keys in his pocket, but digging her hands in the soft fabric revealed nothing. His pockets were empty.
Determined to find whatever it was, Michelle dug her hands into the pockets on the inside of the coat and on the left side, she retrieved a small, velvet-covered box. A box that held jewelry, specifically rings. Ecstatic that William had thought of her, had purchased her a special gift because he knew that she wasn’t feeling well, Michelle bounded into the kitchen. “And who is this for?” she asked in a playful singsong.
William had been standing in front of the fridge, guzzling a bottle of beer. When Michelle walked in with the box, the color fled from his face and he sputtered beer across the kitchen. He looked terribly guilty and Michelle felt terribly stupid once she began to understand. When William didn’t answer, Michelle asked the question again but she employed a very different tone. “Who is this for, William?”
William’s posture crumpled and all he said was her name in a pathetic kind of whimper.
Michelle chucked the little box at William’s fat head and moved to the front closet. She grabbed her boots and slid them on, and she shoved herself into her winter coat. She was digging through the bowl that kept their keys by the front door when she heard footsteps.
“Where are you going? It’s supposed to squall,” William said.
“Like you give a shit,” Michelle spat. She found her keys and was out the door before William could say another word. Michelle started driving to her mother’s house but didn’t get very far before the wild, winter winds and snow began to pile up. She had to pull over because she couldn’t see where she was going. Whether it was the inclement weather or the tears in her eyes, Michelle waited for the squall to pass before she continued away from the home she shared with William.

On coming back.

the-comeback-is-always-stronger-than-the-setback-13163545

It’s been a year since my last blog post. I want to say I’ve been busy, and I have, but not in the romantic, adventurous ways I’d like. I was struggling with depression and losing the battle for a while. I had no inspiration, no motivation, no real reason to get up in the morning. There were some really awful nights where I sobbed until I couldn’t breathe, where I gorged myself until I couldn’t move, where I didn’t even leave my house to check the mail. I hated my existence and hated who I was – only the worst sort of person could allow herself to be such a fucking loser, I thought.

And the problem with writing, I realized, is that it is solitary and sedentary, making it NOT conducive to the my goals of being social and beautiful, but it remained vital to my survival; I have to write. So instead of blogging, I filled journals with scribbled self-loathing and only a few blips of creative expression.

But therapy helped; it really did. And so did attending The Writer’s Hotel writing conference in New York City in June of last year. I was inspired, invigorated! I met some truly amazing and talented people whom I still talk to. I got some much needed perspective and validation. As a result, I’m healthier than I’ve been in a long time, and I only have one more chapter to revise on my manuscript.

So I’m back, bitches! Here’s a prompt for your enjoyment.

01.2019: Stealing Sentences
     I opened up to a random page in Nic Pizzolatto’s collection of short stories, “Between Here and the Yellow Sea.” I chose the first sentence I saw, and wrote this little ditty.

She looked briefly at his art. “I don’t get it.”
Jay blinked. “What do you mean?” he asked in an accusatory tone, offended because he believed she was being intentionally obtuse.
Alison cocked her head to the left, trying to study the sculpture from a different angle. She narrowed her eyes and Jay remained breathless. When Alison sighed, Jay did too, disappointed and deflated. “What is it?” Alison asked.
“I can’t believe you can’t tell,” Jay growled. He gathered his sculpture delicately in his arms and headed for the door.
“Oh come on, Jay, it’s not that serious,” Alison pleaded as she followed close behind. As soon as the words escaped her mouth, she knew she had just made everything worse. Jay took his art super seriously and Alison knew that.
“I wasn’t looking for an in-depth critique or anything,” Jay said. He was struggling to open the door with his sculpture simultaneously nestled in his hands. “A little enthusiasm would have been nice, that’s all.”
Jay was avoiding eye contact, so Alison used the opportunity to roll her eyes. “I am always enthusiastic about everything you do. You just caught me on a bad day. I had an awful morning. I tried to make coffee without closing the lid on the coffee maker.”
“Fascinating,” Jay spat. His hand slipped against the doorknob. Alison reached over and opened the door for Jay. Neither moved for half a minute. Then Jay said, “I spent hours making this today. I was so proud of this sculpture and the first person I thought of to share my joy with was you. And you couldn’t even humor me.” With a wounded look that irritated Alison to no end, Jay marched himself out of Alison’s apartment and into the hallway. She slammed the door behind him, pissed at Jay for making her feel guilty. She didn’t really think he wanted to share joy with her. He wanted to praised for his artistic endeavor like some elementary school kid. He was a grown ass man who should be confident in his abilities and shouldn’t need any validation.
All the same, Alison supposed she could have asked questions and feigned interest, even if only for a few minutes, or until his excitement waned. She’d call later and apologize when she had more energy.
It really had been an awful morning."His work hovers between neo-realism, post-modernism and crap."

On obligatory new year resolutions and the value of introspection.

MAN_ON_A_LISBON_BUS

Hypocrisy, in my opinion, is one of the worst human flaws. I understand this sentiment is ironic because just about a year ago, I wrote a post which discussed hitting rock bottom and how I was going to change myself into the woman I have the potential of being, the woman I so desperately want to be. However, the year came and went and nothing changed. If anything, I got worse; the weight has ballooned into an unhealthy, unattractive number; creative writing has all but ceased; I still spend more nights than I care to admit to publically eating bad food and re-watching romantic comedies at home … alone.

But recently, I was forced to think about the last five years of my life. With the clarity hindsight provides, I was able to understand that I had been through several tumultuous periods and had tried to blindly just trudge ahead. The spirit is commendable, but in doing so, I developed many unhealthy coping mechanisms that have since cost me my health and happiness and, to a point, my sanity.

So that is my resolution for 2018: to get back to good, and to take my life back. To do that, I am going to spend more time doing what I love. I’ll read more and I will update this blog once a week (every Wednesday for Writer Wednesday … get it? I’m a sucker for alliteration). Granted they start on a Thursday this week, but I had snowmageddon to contend with. And would it really be me if I did something right the first time around?

I will progress my literary career in 2018.

I will start taking classes for my Masters degree.

I will diet and exercise and the goal is to lose at least 30 pounds by May 16th (when I see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway!). I want to go hiking at least once a month and really spend more time in nature. This, plus starting therapy, will help me regain mental health and stability.

I will begin making improvements to my home to make it cozier and to become more independent.

Putting all this in writing helps me to formulate a plan and in my attempt to avoid hypocrisy at all costs, helps me to stick to these resolutions.

And now for some creative writing; stay golden, readers. And be excellent to each other.

WRITING PROMPT #01.2018: After falling asleep on a twenty-hour bus ride to his mother’s house, a college student wakes up to discover that he’s been on the wrong bus the entire time.

I stood in the bus station, looking out at a deserted Main Street that was slowly but surely filling with snow. The winter wind was whipping itself into a frenzy; I could feel it slipping through the door in front of me, and it was enough to make me shiver in my jeans and tee shirt. I was woefully unprepared for the wintry mix outside because I had fully anticipated waking up as the bus came to a stop in Atlanta, Georgia. Yet here I was in Liberty, Indiana.

I couldn’t understand how it happened. Obviously, I boarded the wrong bus, but how could that have happened? How could I have made such a stupid, stupid mistake? I rubbed my cheek, felt the stubble that needed to be shaved. It was bristly against my palm and helped me come back to myself. Staring out the door would do no good. I needed a plan. I needed to think of some course of action, so I walked back to the uncomfortable bench that was no more than a piece of curved steel. It was cold against my lower back, as the thin cotton of my shirt was powerless against the cold that seemed to pervade everywhere. It helped me to prioritize; I would get myself some boots, a heavy coat, some gloves, a scarf, and a hat. If I was going to be lost, I could at least be comfortable doing it.

Behind the counter was an elderly, grizzled-looking man who just wanted to get home. He watched me approach without interest, with a cold detachment that I took as a bad sign. I had heard that people in the Midwest, although weird, were incredibly friendly. This guy looked like I could have walked up to him on fire, burning alive, and he would have yawned and apathetically watched me turn to ash. I did my best to smile, and as polite as humanly possible, I said, “Good evening, sir.”

He said nothing in reply. He only blinked back at me.

I swallowed hard and pressed on. “Could you tell me where the nearest clothing store is? I didn’t know it’d be- “

“There’s the Liberty Mall right next door. You might have some luck there.”

I nodded, mumbling my thanks as I pulled the straps of my duffle bag higher up on my shoulder. He nodded in return and turned away.

I was on my own.

Outside the bus station, the cold was overwhelming. I imagined my fingers and toes turning blue, then black, then falling off. I’d leave a trail of them the cops could follow to the doors of the Liberty Mall, where they’d find me all frozen and stiff and dead.

I didn’t used to be this dramatic.

I hurried over to the mall, walking close against the sides of the buildings to avoid all snow as best as I could. I wrenched the door open against the wind that was really starting to pick up, and the first thing I saw was a little, sad-looking department store that appeared to have ignore the turn of the last century. My feeling of disorientation was growing; what time was it? Had I traveled not only in the wrong direction for twenty hours, but had I also gone back in time?  The yellow lights that burned overhead burned low, so that everything was washed in a depressing shade of yellow and looked older than it was and sickly. There was a young woman who came from around the counter and walked to the very edge of the store’s boundary. She hadn’t noticed me, and she reached high up over head. I realized she meant to close the metal gate that rolled down, so I sprinted over to her.

“Miss, please! Don’t close that gate!”

She looked at me in alarm, scrambling back a few steps and wrapping her arms around herself. I felt bad but was grateful she’d backed away from the gate. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said, “but we’re closing.” She looked at me from the sides of her eyes, turning her head mostly away from me.

“I can appreciate that, but I don’t have any winter clothes and I’ll freeze to death outside.” I stopped just inside the store. “I’m supposed to be in Atlanta. I got on the wrong bus and I have no winter clothes packed. Can I buy some clothes?”

She slightly turned her head towards me and looked me up and down. “But I’ve already shut down the register.”

“I’ll pay cash. We’ll cut the tags off and you can ring everything up first thing tomorrow.” She didn’t move. “Or you can turn it back on while I look around. Please, miss. Please … what’s your name?”

“Caroline.”

“Please, Caroline. My name’s Dillon and I just rode a bus from Philadelphia for twenty hours. I’m embarrassed, I’m cold, I’m tired, and I’m hungry. Help me fix one of those things, please.”

Caroline’s hands dropped to her sides. Her eyes were big and brown and nice to look at it now that they were no longer narrowed with suspicion. “Be quick,” she said before she turned and went behind the counter. I thanked her again and again, what seemed like a thousand times over, and she only got me to shut up by pointing me in the direction of the outer wear – first right off the main aisle. As I turned, I could see the bulky jackets crudely stuffed against one another, hanging from circular racks. I breathed a little easier and slowed my pace, figuring I could take a second to enjoy the tiny victory. I passed a t-shaped rack filled with coats for infants, the sizes ran from 0-3 months, and I came to a complete stop.

Later, when I called my mom from a bar with a steak and a mound of mashed potatoes both smothered in gravy in front of me, she harassed me, berated me until I could explain how I managed to be so stupid. What kind of jackass gets on the wrong bus? I tried the empty, obvious answers; that the bus station was crowded and overwhelmed with holiday travelers. I lied and said I was half-listening when the man who sold me my ticket talked about transfers, so I fell asleep and forgot. She wasn’t satisfied. She knew I was lying even though she couldn’t see my face in the way that only mothers can. I did the only thing I could do; I broke and told my mother the God’s honest truth about the last 48 hours.

Staring at the infant jackets reminded me of Alicia. I had met her in college, after I had gone to the north and broken my mother’s heart. Alicia was an art major who didn’t give a damn about plans or responsibilities. I was intoxicated by her freedom and her wildness, and she helped me to let my guard down and to get into a little bit of trouble. It wasn’t anything serious; no legal troubles, but a few stories to tell with a big smile. I loved her. And I’d tell her all the time. I told her I loved her constantly. She never said it back, just took me into her arms, into her bedroom, into the nearest place that offered any kind of privacy and she’d let me show her how much I loved her. I never thought much of it; I was happy and it made me stupid, I guess.

I invited Alicia home to meet my mom. She was supposed to be on the bus with me.

But she sat me down in the kitchen of her on-campus apartment and explained that she wasn’t looking for anything serious. She said going home to meet a guy’s family was pretty serious, the way having a baby was serious. Alicia usually talked in long, winding paths that eventually got to some point. And I could usually anticipate the destination of her dialogue and patiently wait for her to get there. But this time, I was confused. “Who said anything about having a baby? No one said anything about a baby.”

Alicia looked at her hands between her knees. “I didn’t want to tell you because I saw this coming. I knew you were getting caught up.”

I stood up. “Tell me what?”

“I was pregnant.”

There was a moment of stunned silence. She told me she was on the pill, so how this could have happened seemed the obvious question to ask next, but her phrasing troubled me more. “What do you mean was?”

“Don’t worry, I took care of it.”

It was hard for me to swallow. My face felt hot, but I knew I was cold all over. “What do you mean you took care of it?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Alicia said. She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean, Dillon. Don’t make me say the obvious.”

“You didn’t tell me?”

“I knew this was going to happen,” Alicia said. “You always take things too seriously. You get too invested. You’re gonna break your heart a million times over doing that.” She went to walk past me, to leave me standing there alone. As she passed, I grabbed her nearest arm and wrenched her back. She stumbled back to stand in front of me. Her face was pale, her eyes were wide, and her breathing had quickened. She was scared but I didn’t give a shit.

“You’re a fucking bitch.”

Alicia brought her hands to her face like I slapped her, like I was bringing my hand back to do it again. I still didn’t give a shit. “I love you! We’ve been sleeping together for two years, and you don’t tell me you’re pregnant? You don’t tell me you’re gonna get rid of it? That’s fucking weird, Alicia.”

Alicia came back to herself. “It’s my body, my decision. And I don’t have to explain myself to you! Just because I don’t buy into some Judeo-Christian definition of woman-“

“Oh, fuck off! This isn’t political! This is personal!”

Alicia pushed me hard. I moved back a step or two. She wasn’t strong, but she surprised me. “Don’t you tell me to fuck off, you petulant man child! I knew you’d be hypersensitive about this. Grow up, Dillon! You’re so pathetic, I-“

I shoved her. Hard. Hard enough so she fell back onto the carpeted floor of the living room, just a few steps away. I was losing control, and an apology rose to my lips, but I kept them shut tight. I had never laid a hand on anybody my entire life. I was a father, then I wasn’t. I was a gentleman, then I wasn’t.

Alicia was this smart, beautiful firecracker I tried to keep held securely in my hand. But firecrackers explode, go off, and the result was injury.

I left her lying on the floor. Confused, depressed, and desperate, I went back to my dorm room and drank until I fell asleep. When I woke, I only had thirty minutes to pack and get to the bus station. I blindly followed the crowds onto the wrong bus, going unnoticed because of the thronging crowds of holiday travelers, and then I slept.

“Dillon? Sir? Are you finding everything okay?”

I blinked and silent tears rolled down my cheeks. Caroline had caught me hundreds of miles away, in a different time and place. She found me vulnerable, crying in an outdated department store in a small town in Indiana.

On still insisting to see the ghosts.

Hello all! Welcome to another edition of Writers’ Wednesdays!

And boy, do I have a story for you. It’s quite the story; so much so that I have decided to forego the weekly writing prompt to share this story.

School started up a week ago, so I’ve been busy. Mostly, I feel overwhelmed and exhausted just trying to keep up with all the demands, but I also know this is partly because I’m hormonal and partly because I’m recovering from the extreme lethargy of summer break. It appears that more than my muscles entered a nearly lethal state of atrophy. To escape all of that ugliness, I was really looking forward to seeing “IT,” the new adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. Well, for all of those reasons and because it would be a welcome return to familiar territory.

Even only an occasional reader of this blog knows that I’m something of a Stephen King fanatic. I think he’s absolutely brilliant. I’ve read most of his work – even the writing under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman – and I’ve seen all of the adaptations; the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ve seen him at readings at least three times and have traveled out of state to do so. Next to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he’s my favorite author. And of all his works, IT has a special place in my heart and has affected me in a very profound way. I remember finishing the monster of a novel (pun very much intended) with a stunning clarity. I remember I was on the way to one of my twin sister’s many athletic competitions at our local high school, practically dragged kicking and screaming to help watch our little brother who is ten years our junior. I was sitting in the last seat of this monstrosity of a vehicle (last pun, I promise), this huge, black van that I absolutely despised. It was roomy, it was comfortable, it was a logical purchase, but it had a television. That’s not a bad thing, unless you were like me: a fifteen-year-old girl who considered herself rather literary and therefore superior. In a silent, pointless protest, I would bring books in the van to avoid the television, which often blared to entertain the other passengers.

I was the worst fifteen-year-old.

On a particularly dreary day, on my way back to the high school against my will, I was in the van and I was reading. I was going to finish IT, and I did so sobbing. The story is so beautiful, and I wept with a palpable, pulsating kind of ache because I wanted so desperately to be an integral part of a team on an important mission. I wanted so badly to have a shared purpose who loved me so much they would die for me, people who weren’t family so loving me would be a choice, more of a conscious decision. I wanted a Losers Club. I wanted to make and keep a promise to be a hero. I wanted to be an adult who was still a child. In short, I wanted everything that was in the novel. I needed it to be real.

Until September 8th of this year, the best I could was re-watch a badly outdated miniseries (that I still cherish, just to be clear).

I was so excited for the new adaptation, I made plans with a friend to purchase tickets early for a fancy theater with reclining leather seats, massive screens, and speakers that boomed so loud you can feel their vibrations inside your chest. I was going to travel to a movie theater in Howell that I’d never been to, that had only opened a few years ago. I posted about the adaptation and my plans on social media for months. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited for a movie (if I had to guess, it’d be the last “Harry Potter” movie).

And the film did not disappoint. At the time of this post, I’ve already seen it twice. If you haven’t seen the movie, do yourself a favor and make plans to go and see the movie. Whether or not you’ve read the massive novel, the story is brilliantly told with great care. That being said, the movie is also incredibly disturbing. It effortlessly gets underneath your skin and catches you at random moments throughout the day. It stays with you, changes you.

When I left the theater, my stomach hurt from the anxiety. My muscles were sore from cramping and my mind was reeling. All I wanted to do was talk about what I had seen, purge the myriad of my emotions onto my companions, relive the film’s best moments. But once we left the theater, we were told we could not enter the lobby and could not even go past the podium where tickets were ripped for admission. We saw a line of employees, a kind of human barricade. It was unsettling and unnerving, even more so because we stumbled , blinking into the lights of reality from a nightmare of a film. We weren’t told why we couldn’t leave, but rumor among the large number of people leaving theaters and filling the hallway was that something was going on in the parking. We nervously shifted for about ten minutes before deciding to go the bathroom. The females in my group pressed through the tense crowd, doing our best to politely make a path, and happened to pass a female police officer. She was busily making her way through the crowd and was being asked for information at every turn. We heard her say that we were safe inside the building, and that if we wanted to be extra safe, we would move further down the hallway and away from the glass windows.

I swallowed hard. I could tell the other women in my group were nervous and upset, so I did my best to stay calm and lighthearted. All the same, we moved down the hallway.

We were inside the theater for about forty minutes. People were making themselves comfortable, plugging phone chargers into available outfits, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall. People were preparing for a long haul, and why shouldn’t they? There was lack of information and our phones were dying one by one. Finally, an intimidatingly muscular police office got the crowd’s attention and said we could leave as long as we stayed behind him, proceeded in an orderly fashion, and kept our voice down.

My stomach flipped over.

We did as instructed, my friends and I holding onto each other as we followed the officer. He led us to the far end of the hallway and through a rear exit out the side of the building. We left the doors, trampled over gravel along a chain link fence and ended up in an adjacent parking lot. We were not allowed to go to our cars; the parking lot was being searched and the police had established a perimeter. We waited for another twenty minutes in the chilly night air, rehashing everything that had happened so far and asking for any news. I called my father just before my phone died and asked him to pick us up; we weren’t sure when we’d be allowed back in the cars.

We saw cop cars go speeding by.

My dad arrived just as the police began to let people return to their cars and leave. I still went home with my dad, still seeking some familiar comfort and not wanting to be alone (I never really want to be alone). Saying goodbye to my friends, I smiled and agreed that we’d have a hell of a story to share.

But when I got in my dad’s truck, I cried. I cried really hard because I had been so scared. There was the movie and then there was the reality, and I was scared of both, and I was scared that they could never be distinguished between, and I was tired.

The employee who ripped our tickets, who guided us to the theater, who I bantered with for a few brief moments, was arrested because he had an inert hand grenade, two handguns – one of which was loaded – and hollow-point ammunition in his car. A fellow employee told the manager something was wrong, and the manager called the police. One of the theaters had an off-duty cop just trying to relax and catch a flick.

Thank God for the police, and thank God no one was hurt.

Leave it to Stephen King to scar me in unpredictable ways.

 

On the problem with remembering things.

If you’ve been reading this blog, or even if it’s your first time ever reading this blog (let me be brutally honest here), you’re probably able to tell that I’m a bit of an idiot. Luckily, I’m a loveable idiot who does no real harm and my friends only feign impatience for comedic effect. For example, I thought today was Tuesday but it’s Wednesday. I’ve been posting on my social media outlets about my upcoming Writer’s Wednesday, trying to hype it up which has obviously been quite ineffective because today is Wednesday. Today is Writer’s Wednesday. It’s 11:51 pm on Writer’s Wednesday, and I am now just sitting down to write.

But at least I have interesting things to share (which may or may not be thinly veiled excuses as to why I am late in updating this beloved blog AGAIN).

Yesterday was an AWESOME day. I received TWO requests for more material (the first three chapters of my completed manuscript and the entire completed manuscript) from two literary agencies! It feels SO GOOD not to be rejected outright, regardless of whether or not something comes from these requests. It’s also nice to know my query letter is effective. Oh, The Charlotte Gusay Literary Agency (that I think I mentioned last time) wrote me to tell me they received my sample chapters, so hopefully I hear something from them soon. AND a perfect stranger commented on my blog with the sweetest, most inspirational, and wonderfully kind message about my writing and what it meant to her. What writer could ask for anything more?

I met some of the neighborhood kids yesterday. I was reading and writing on my back porch, and they were friendly. They kept stopping to say hello once they’d reached the top of these large mounds of dirt on their bikes right behind my house (they appeared out of nowhere, but I think there’s plans to build a house on the vacant lot behind mine) and could see me properly. I went inside to eat dinner, and the kids knocked on my door. They asked for water, but I didn’t have any water bottles, so I gave them cans of soda (at least they were diet, right? Unless that’s worse; it’s impossible to tell anymore). They were very polite and gracious and kept telling me how nice I was. From the mouths of babes, right? They came back for a third can of soda for another friend, and the one kid really wanted to ask me for a band aid – weird – but the supposedly injured kid was decidedly against it, either because he wasn’t cut or he was embarrassed. Either way, it felt good to be a good person. I remember reading on Facebook one time that it’s important to smile at and be kind to children because it helps them keep their faith in humanity.

I kept the good deeds rolling today; I spent five hours cleaning my grandma’s house from top to bottom. She passed away on the last Monday in June, and it really knocked me on my ass. I know death and grief has that effect on most people, but I really thought I was prepared. She had Alzheimer’s, so we all knew what was coming, but it’s still so … sad. It’s just sad. We have to liquidate all her assets to start executing the will, so we have to sell her house. All the furniture’s been emptied out and given to family in need, and gone are all her personal effects. My entrance into her home was marked by a melancholy echo. Everything reverberated in the empty space and I needed a few moments to catch my breath, to blink back tears. It was so surreal to see it vacant and unlived in, like all my memories of that house could be as easily removed from existence. I dusted and wiped and vacuumed and scrubbed and swept and scoured in that small, dark space for hours, literally eliminating any trace that my grandma – or anyone for that matter – had ever been there. What a strange concept.

My grandma’s home is in an adult retirement community. I feel like I should mention that to better explain why her house was small. Also, it’s dark because since her death, no one’s been in the home and bulbs burn out unnoticed. That’s all well and good, but while I was cleaning, a wicked thunder storm rolled through and made everything darker, my mood included.

At one point, I halted what I was doing and stood to stretch. My back and arms were sore from more cleaning than I’d ever done in my life. I looked out the window in the former dining room and saw sunlight streaming in my grandma’s backyard. There were splashes of sun on the formidable hill directly behind her house, visible through the window, but it was raining and I could hear the thunder in the distance as it crept closer, its growl low and menacing.

I couldn’t have invented a better metaphor. I guess that admission doesn’t bode well for this week’s blog post, eh? Well, it’s been a disaster from the start, honestly; I don’t even know what day it is. I hope you read and comment and share and enjoy anyway. I should mention that this week’s writing prompt proved very challenging. It tackles an exceedingly sensitive subject, and I did my best to keep that in mind throughout my writing.

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #5.2017: A woman is raped by her husband.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that humans do their best thinking in the shower. More than that, it’s scientific; being engaged in a mindless task (like shampooing and conditioning and sudsing up) in a relaxed environment (what’s more relaxing than a steamy shower?) sort of shuts down the brain’s prefrontal cortex, thus allowing the brain to consider creative and unconventional solutions to problems. Unfortunately for Chloe, her fingers were grossly wrinkled and the water was turning cold, but she still hadn’t been able to figure out why she was crying or why her stomach kept flipping over. She was seated on the shower floor directly under the showerhead with her knees pulled up to her chin and with her arms wrapped around her legs.

Chloe was trying to hold herself together.

She had started falling apart, had sunk into the pathetic posture of her current state, once she noticed the pinkish hue of the water circling the drain; blood. It was evidence something bad had happened last night.

It wasn’t the only evidence, either. The uneasy feeling exacerbated by the tiny rivers of previously dried blood that briefly streamed down her legs and arms had manifested when Chloe climbed from the bed exceedingly sore – even in places she didn’t know could ache – and undressed to find bruises. Dark, brutal-looking spots marred the skin on her thighs, upper arms, and chest. She ran trembling fingers over them, pressing to feel the pain, to make sure they were just what she thought they were.

Something bad had happened. The question was what.

Chloe’s reflection had given nothing away. Smeared makeup and puffy, swollen eyes were par for the course when she drank, and she had gotten loaded last night. She and Paul both had gotten loaded to celebrate … celebrate something Chloe couldn’t exactly recall, which meant it had been Paul’s affair, Paul’s idea. Had he been promoted? It was something predictable and clichéd like that, but they had gone overboard, partying like the newly rich, like they were young and dumb.

Chloe remembered stumbling into a blessedly empty ladies’ room in the thick of things. She staggered over to the sink, slow and stupid, and caught a glimpse of herself. She knew she needed to slow down, maybe something of a premonition of the bad thing to come. Naturally Chloe’s resolve completely dissipated when she returned to Paul, to their private party.

But she remembered saying no, and doing so firmly, loudly. Chloe remembered wanting to stop. Was that at the restaurant? At any one of the many bars that followed? In the car?

Chloe gasped. She remembered a fight in the bedroom. They had been fooling around on the bed, half in the bag and half undressed, and Chloe wanted to stop. It was like that when she drank. She’d suddenly have to put herself to bed or else the room would spin and she’s vomit. Chloe had tried to explain this to Paul, which was weird because her husband knew her inside and out and should be familiar with her warning signs, but Paul wouldn’t listen. Paul just wanted to keep feeling good and wasn’t taking no for an answer.

But that couldn’t be right. With the shuddering sobs passing through her bruised body, Chloe was trying to be rational. They were drunk and things got out of hand. Paul loved her and she loved Paul, and they were husband and wife, happily married.

People don’t rape the people they love. Husbands can’t rape their wives.

How could Chloe even think of the r-word? That wasn’t Paul; he was a good man and an amazing husband. He only got a little “handsy” when he drank.

But there was blood. And there were bruises. And Chloe had said no.

Chloe had been raped by her husband. And she was going to stay in the shower until she knew what that really meant or she drowned.

She was hoping for the latter.

11800-Crying-In-The-Shower

 

OH! And you should read A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby if you need to get out of an emotional funk or want to cry happy tears or both. The movie is just as fantastic.

 

On life-changing events.

I know it’s been a while since the last time I wrote, which is a phrase I use much too often to begin these posts. I promised myself I would make writing a priority and I haven’t. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, the world is too much with me. I let work and friends and television and social media and solitaire and invented melodramas take up much too much of my time, but that is all changing, slowly but surely. After all, they say you need to acknowledge and admit to having a problem before you can even begin to solve it.

It is a REAL tragedy writing hasn’t moved more into the forefront of my thoughts and ambitions and desires because that conference/workshop was truly life changing. It was a whirlwind of emotions, but I left feeling validated and prepared and motivated and determined. I mustn’t lose sight of that, or it will all be for nothing.

So today, I kicked my own ass running along the Barnegat Bay (good for body and soul) and am sitting down to properly update you all on that amazing, life-changing, soul-affirming trip to St. Augustine. The trip to Florida was relatively unremarkable; I left my parents house at about midnight (after only shutting my eyes for three hours before the 15-hour drive; I was too anxious, too excited, too eager) and essentially took I-95 all the way down. I passed A LOT of accidents, which I worried might be a bad omen, but I also drove by the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and the Pentagon, which I don’t think I’ve ever done despite my many years traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard. Once I arrived in St. Augustine and made it to the hotel, all of my fears were assuaged. I made it, and I had never felt so blessed in my life. It was stunning – absolutely breathtaking – gorgeous! There were so many boats out on the water – the weather was pretty much perfect the entire time I was in St. Augustine – and I could see the boats in the bay from the balcony outside my hotel room. It was impossible (well, almost) to tell the residents from the tourists because everyone was walking along the water in the sunshine. Handsome men were running shirtless, couples were taking leisurely strolls with cool beverages in hand. Such clichéd phrases don’t even do it justice, but they’re all I seem able to muster. I was – and still am – SO grateful, SO thrilled for the opportunity. It was AMAZING and I was continuously in AWE.

How did I ever come back to Jersey?

People in St. Augustine seemed – to me, anyway – to have MONEY – like Gatsby money, and I didn’t bring a laptop to a flipping writers’ workshop/conference (because I didn’t have one; couldn’t afford one). I momentarily felt like an utter moron, but I was okay. And the first thing I purchased with my tax return money was a laptop so I feel like EVEN MORE of a writer now.

Anyway, the first night in St. Augustine was marked by an informal, get-to-know-everyone-dinner. It was … interesting, tp say the VERY least. I went down to the hotel lobby around 7pm and sat outside and waited. Naturally, the others had gathered inside so when I awkwardly meandered in after creeping about the greenery, I met everyone.

Greg is a retired firefighter from the Midwest. Joanna published two novels twenty years ago, and has a house in Palm Beach and a house in the Hamptons. Paula was in medical communications but now she lives in Houston and I think she’s writing full time. Add me to the crew and we were the writers all staying at the hotel.

I instinctively liked Michael Neff, the editor. I hoped I made a good impression and toyed the line between desperate and casual, if such a line even exists. During dinner, I sat between Joanna and Noreene, who just flew in from the Grand Cayman Islands; completely chic and fabulous. I sat across from Doug from Cincinnati; he was hard to read at first, but shortly became one of my favorite people from the whole experience (he used to be a stand-up comedian and the last few days in St. Augustine, he made me laugh so hard, I cried and on top of that, he really is a phenomenal writer, so whatever. Maybe I’m mostly jealous; favorite might be too positive a word. But I’m just kidding. Maybe). Greg was across from me as was Literary Agent Paula (who I’m only referring to as such to differentiate her from Paula from Houston; don’t worry, I didn’t call her that or anything).

I LOVED Literary Agent Paula and on the first night, she gave me GREAT advice. I’ve subscribed to Publisher’s Marketplace, have decided to really focus on finding an agent, am endeavoring to attend more “pitch” conferences, and have decided to break away from Martin Sisters Publishing (the separation ended up being mutual … more on that later). But from listening to everyone talk about the conferences they’d been to and the important people they knew, I felt overwhelmed and realized I was greener than I thought. I was the youngest person there by decades. I knew I had the talent and the passion, but quickly began to understand that I needed the wisdom.

Cris is an author from California and Lunka is an aspiring writer with a full-time job (so we had a somewhat instant connection) from Denver; so cool.

So the next day (February 25th) marked the first REAL day of the conference/workshop. I was SCARED; I worked on my pitch for the novel I was currently working on (the title was stupid, so I’ll just call it The Duke Story [even though that’s also stupid]) the night before but still felt mostly nauseous. We met at a beautiful house right on the beach, and it was like something out of a movie or, even better, out of a dream. We sat in a circle and everyone read their pitches. It was so cool and interesting to see how everyone’s pitch matched their personality. I was really impressed with a couple of the stories, and everyone had something awesome to share … except me. At least that’s what it felt like, because my mood went from nauseated to dead when both Literary Agent Paula and Michael told me The Duke Story wasn’t marketable and encouraged me to work on “Don’t Drink the Water” (but that title is different now, too).

I felt deflated and was too wrapped up in my own shit to enjoy lunch at The Reef, but I did get to know Cris. When we returned to the house to wrap up the day’s session, Literary Agent Paula advised me to ask Hallie Ephron (ARE YOU KIDDING ME?) about the possibility of working on Her Beautiful Monster; Michael loved the title and wanted me to re-work it, but Literary Agent Paula was nervous because it had been published, has an ISBN number, and can easily be looked up … even though the publisher is so small it’s obscure. I felt lost and was happy to return to the hotel. Joanna drove Greg, Paula and me back to the hotel, but we stopped at Publix and the liquor store first. Paula and I needed some grocery items and we all needed booze after the first day. I happily joined them for the free happy hour at the hotel, and got to know Paula better. We sat on the porch swing outside of her room and talked a little bit about everything in our lives. Then I got to work on our assigned homework (identify five things that make our protagonist sympathetic, interesting, unique, etc. by showing, not telling). I used Charlotte from “Don’t Drink the Water” and did okay.

The second day (February 26th) was MUCH better for my ego, my soul, my passion. When I pitched “Don’t Drink the Water,” both Michael and Literary Agent Paula liked it. Then I went on to meet Robert Olen Butler and HE CHANGED MY LIFE. Throughout the course of our conversation, he validated my dream. He understood The Duke Story and my intention; he took the words right out of my mouth, the words I wished I had when I first pitched the story in front of everyone, and he told me he believed I could do it. I cried and hugged him. He is an amazing man and I will forever be indebted to him, no matter what comes of my so-called writing career.

After the conversation, I reworked my pitch and befriended Lunka. We had a spiritual connection as we were both really moved by our conversations with Robert and we exchanged numbers. I have a new writer friend 🙂 After the day’s schedule, Greg and I got dinner in downtown St. Augustine, and I drank and bonded with Joanna at the hotel’s happy hour. While we were there, we met HALLIE EPHRON. I tried to play it cool, but I was sweaty and I’m almost certain I mumbled and drooled instead of actually forming words. She couldn’t have been nicer. Michael brought her there to check her in and he stopped to say hello and encouraged me to do his online course after the workshop/conference. Spoiler alert: I definitely am.

The third day (February 27th) was INTENSE. The morning was actually low-key; we re-worked our pitches and shared our character traits of our protagonists. We all broke for lunch after, and I ate Chinese with Joanna, Paula and Greg. We shared a bottle of wine to calm ourselves because the second half of the day, we pitched our stories to Executive Editor Lyssa Keusch of HarperCollins Publishers (WHAT?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!), Brendan Deneen of Macmillan Entertainment (IS THIS REAL LIFE?!), and Hallie Ephron, the New York Times Best Selling Author (SERIOUSLY?!?!). It was a whirlwind and while I didn’t feel 100% about the experience, it was SO informational and beneficial.

To commemorate our last full day together in St. Augustine, we had dinner together and it was AMAZING, GREAT, WONDERFUL! Joanna and I became as thick as thieves, Doug made me laugh, and Noreene was as sweet as she was fabulous. Joanna and Greg and I drank together back at the hotel and Joanna convinced Lyssa to join us. SO EPIC. SO AWESOME.

All that was scheduled for our very last day (February 28th) were individual consults with Michael Neff. After each consult, the writer left amidst heartfelt goodbyes. My consult was GREAT; Michael was so helpful and encouraging. I left the conference/workshop with a definite purpose and direction and really, what more can a writer ask for? I am in the middle of research, of signing up for the novel development online course, and am beginning writing very soon.

So when I returned to Jersey all fired up, I emailed Martin Sisters Publishing to inquire about my second novel, MOODY BLUE. I had signed a contract and sent it back, but that was back in the final month of 2016 and had heard nothing back. As it turns out, they had no intention of publishing my novel (said they “…couldn’t give it the attention it deserves”) and offered to send it to an even smaller online publisher.

I told them not to bother, but thanked them for everything. I emailed Literary Agent Paula, Michael, and have begun to query agents once again.

Here we go.

Below are links to Joanna’s website and Doug’s website.
JoannaElm.com
DougSpakWrites.com

And I’m sharing some pictures below.

Prompts start again next week … I promise!